On a regular cycle, the Nias islanders of Indonesia would retreat into enforced seclusion. What can we learn from them?
Andrew Beatty is an anthropologist. He is interested in psychological anthropology, life writing, and literary approaches to ethnography. His books include Emotional Worlds: Beyond an Anthropology of Emotion (2019) and two narrative ethnographies: A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java (2009) and After the Ancestors: an Anthropologist’s Story (2015).
Edited by Sam Dresser
With lockdown now as inevitable as death and taxes, our confinements have become as regular as the seasons. Like recidivists in and out of prison, we head through the revolving door, scarcely aware of direction or purpose. Beyond the challenges of provisioning and isolation, glued to our screens, we struggle to make sense of it all. How was it for you? And how will it be? A vacation from life, a foretaste of limbo, or a season in hell? Amid the welter of commentary – medical, political, and psychological – we hanker for a fresh view, an intervention from leftfield that might place things in a different light. In fact or imagination, we wonder, could things be otherwise? An anthropologist usually begins an enquiry by asking a philosophical question – what might it mean? – then, being of an empirical bent, looks abroad for alternative perspectives, different ways of framing or dissolving the problem. Under other skies, other answers.
In Nias, an island in Indonesia, memories of the unrecorded past are inexact. The early 20th century, when the Dutch took power, is as hazy as myth. But once every couple of years, after the rice harvest, villagers would withdraw from society, out of the sun and the rain, the beat of field, forest and hamlet, for seclusion and idleness in the clan house: a ritual disinfection against the evils of the world. The crumbling, stone-paved square would fall silent; so, too, the facing rows of sturdy dwellings: longhouses raised on smooth boles with beetling, sago-thatched roofs and jutting, stepped facades like the sterns of ancient ships drawn up to a quay. When the curfew sounded, at a drum’s command, young and old climbed the creaking staircases, ducking through narrow doorways into gleaming, echoey halls empty of furniture, a communal airy space with dingy, cabin-like cells at the rear. As roof hatches were lowered and doors bolted, the trim, receding dwellings became arks, the outside world dropping away. With the house sealed against contagion and curse, and constituent families – half a dozen per lineage – quarantined between earth and sky six feet above the ground, the isolation was total. Each lineage, with its 40-odd crew, was cut off from its neighbours, afloat on a hilltop, deep in the forest. Such was lockdown in Tanö Niha, the Land of People (from niha meaning ‘person’, ‘human’, ‘Niasan’).
I’ve waited many years to make what would have once been a far-fetched comparison, a flight of fancy. Fieldwork in the 1980s, and again in 2011, couldn’t have suggested it. But reality has caught up. And midway through a third lockdown in the UK, the parallels are inescapable. As, of course, are the differences – though I begin to wonder about those too. Anthropology holds up a mirror to ourselves by considering forms of life alien to our beliefs and practices. Yet strangeness conceals deeper affinities. In the play of reflections and family resemblances, we glimpse ourselves in others, others in ourselves – a double-take as disturbing as it is illuminating. In the field – the anthropologist’s lab – our treasured verities get stretched and inverted, our shibboleths are shaken, our sense of human possibility enlarged. Distortion reveals the habitual in a new light. The effect is akin to what the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky in 1919 called ostranenie or ‘estrangement’, a literary technique of defamiliarisation exemplified in the work of Leo Tolstoy. Anthropology turns ostranenie into a vocation. As an ethnographer, immersed in another world, you shuttle between two conflicting ways of acting, thinking and feeling – torn, struggling, but living to tell the tale. From radical displacement, dépaysement, you construct a view of the world that’s true to your hosts, but born from yourself. The alien and familiar emerge as transformations of each other, variations on a theme. The Other is accepted, stranger and friend.
Here’s the challenge. That enigmatic sanctuary, high and dry in Tanö Niha, that home-bound exile, might tell us something general about the power of ritual, about purity and danger, the handling of risk, the bonds of community, or perhaps something vital about our common humanity. For we too, as fellow niha, connect to that faraway place…